Patronal Festival, Sunday 25th June 2000
Ezekiel 3:22-27; Acts 12:1-11; Matthew 16:13-19
Well, here we are. One might say, the end of a journey, and in some ways it is. For us as a family we have, at least physically, made a transition. At times it has seemed to be taking a long time; at others we have been left breathless, wondering where on earth the time has gone. For the people of St Peter’s it has been a long, and for some at least, an arduous journey from the time of Leslie’s departure fourteen months ago to this moment. We all, in different ways, owe a real depth of gratitude to Eileen for the enormous weight of responsibility which she has carried, with Jim’s strong support; and to the Readers, to the Churchwardens and many others who have ensured not only that ‘the show is kept on the road’, but the life of this congregation, and the ministry of the church in this city centre has continued to grow and develop. So it is perfectly justifiable for us all, momentarily, to pause, to seek refreshment, to reflect together on the journey, and to give thanks to God for all that has been achieved.
But we know it is not the end of the journey - no not even, if Churchill will forgive me, the beginning of the end, for as a rather more ancient writer of epithets, St Augustine, said: ‘the city of God is on pilgrimage in this world.’
We are always on the move. The church is never static. It is never content with what it is or what it has. We always look beyond, in faith, in hope and in love, to the fulfilment of the promises of God.
So, what now, as together we prepare to set out on the next leg of our journey? What should we expect, what should we be looking for, how should we as individuals, and we as part of the whole people of God, make ourselves ready?
The concept of travel has changed out of all recognition in the past hundred years. The fact that I happen to have spent the last six years of my life flitting from one part of the world to another, visiting some thirty-three countries and having been on something like two hundred and fifty different aeroplanes is frankly no great shakes! People are doing it all the time, and in order for me to travel from London to Sydney, or Cape Town or Buenos Aires, I need to do very little by way of preparation. I must pack a suitcase, and perhaps take medical precautions, and ensure I know which terminal at Heathrow to go to, and how to find it - probably the biggest challenge of the lot. But in effect, everything is done for me.
In a world in which you can communicate instantly with anyone and everyone (almost) and which you can circumnavigate in hours rather than months, the whole concept of journeying, or in more churchy language, of pilgrimage is rather more problematic. We want and expect instant results. To set out is to arrive, and even if my experience of traffic-flow in Nottingham so far is untypical - and I fear it is not - the risks and dangers and sheer hard labour of travel which would have been common a century and more ago are not generally part of life today.
One hundred and fifty years ago, an extraordinary band set out from this country. They knew where they wanted to get to. It was a new and largely undeveloped territory in the South Pacific - New Zealand. The party that set out on 1st September 1850 was made up of eight hundred people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Who can possibly imagine what must have gone through their minds as they gathered in St Paul’s Cathedral to hear a sermon from the then Archbishop of Canterbury, J B Sumner, before setting out for London Docks, and more than three months on the open seas. But the group, led by a man aptly named John Robert Godley, a member of Christ Church Oxford, had a vision. They were immersed in a Europe which was facing difficult times politically and philosophically. Old ways and old beliefs were being profoundly undermined. The Church in England was struggling to come to terms with the fact that its dominant position in society was being attacked, that in the death of rural, feudal England, and the birth of industrial society, urban deprivation and the beginnings of meritocracy, it could no longer rely on ideas of tradition and duty and gentility to preserve that position.
This group of pilgrims believed that society could be different, that the Christian Faith could offer profound insights into the ordering of society, that people of different backgrounds - including the indigenous population of New Zealand - could live and flourish together; and they had the vision, the determination, the capacity to take unbelievable risks, and a strong sense of corporate identity, of belonging to one another and relying upon one another, to achieve their aim. Three months after setting out, they arrived in what we know as Canterbury Province, and so well did they work together that within weeks their settlement was flourishing, and took the name Christchurch.
The reason I use this illustration is because, in a rather peripheral way, I have been involved in preparing the quite extensive celebrations this year to mark the anniversary. Central to them has been the production of a major new piece of music with the atmospheric title ‘Around the Curve of the World’, and it is sub-titled ‘A musical parable for the new millennium’. It has been composed by Francis Grier, one of our foremost composers, and the text, written by Sue Mayo, is a remarkable work. The words I used at the beginning of this address were taken from it. They consist of a number of canticles and psalms which draw heavily on biblical imagery, and the narrative is drawn from the diaries of John Godley and one or two others. It is a powerful and deeply moving work, the world premiere of which Fran and I were fortunate to be present at earlier this year.
What above all it recognises is that Scripture resonates with journey. It resonates with risk-taking. It resonates with trust in God’s promises. The narrative begins with a reminder of that first great journey of faith:
And the story is constructed around that great vision; we hear prayers and songs of praise, cries of fear and words of comfort and hope, as the safe and familiar recedes into the night, and the promise of unknown blessings seems still so far off.
And so here we are. We are beginning a new chapter in our pilgrimage. I hope we do so with joy, with hope, with faith, with thanksgiving. But let us from the outset be honest. We are nervous. For us all, it is still a journey into the unknown, however lush and green may be the promised land. Most of us, I guess, were familiar with the route before, and with the way we did things. Now there are new faces, and that for you and for me is risky. We know little of one another. It will be something of an adventure to get to know one another - but adventures are not always comfortable. You may well be wondering what effect that rather strange institution for which I have been working may have had upon me. And I confess that I have had doubts and hesitations, as well as genuine excitement and anticipation along the way. But just as those amazing pilgrims of one hundred and fifty years ago were so reliant upon one another, and trusting in the Vision of God; so we as a faithful community will need a similar degree of trust. Each person in this church today - each member of the parish, is an integral part of this adventure. Each person brings a wealth of experience, of skills and of commitment which is entirely unique. This is a profoundly gifted part of the body - as is every congregation, big or small. Our mission, our pilgrimage is a corporate one which needs us all. No one person has all the gifts - certainly not your new rector! No one person has the whole vision. Each of us has strengths and each of us has weaknesses. All of us can become discouraged, disenchanted, frustrated - and in those moments, look to our neighbours in Christ to stand alongside, and strengthen and encourage. Let me make one thing very clear from the outset. I am not moving in here to take control, to dictate the direction of this parish (even if I could). I am not the boss, who is going to supplant all those who have been working away so effectively for so long. There are many gifts of the Spirit, and they have not all been given to the clergy. We do have a special role, and that role is primarily to do with tending the vision, a ministry of encouragement and hope. But the Spirit blows where it will, and God’s gifts are liberally shared out. Everyone has a role, and the necessary gifts to fulfil that role, on this extraordinary journey on which we have embarked.
And if you think to yourself, well I have nothing to offer. There’s nothing I can do, simply go back to the stories of St Peter. There could be no better person to have as a patron. The great visionary, who in a flash of inspiration, was able to rise above the crowd and proclaim ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ is the same man who said ‘I do not know him’. Peter strikes the High Priest’s servant in Gethsemane, totally failing to understand, yet in this most ordinary of people is a wonderful miracle wrought that others may know and understand. It is precisely because we are human, fallible, weak and sinful that we are of such use to God. If we were anything else, there would be no room for his Spirit to work in us.
A Roman Catholic theologian, Mary Grey, has recently published a book entitled ‘The Outrageous Pursuit of Hope.’ That is not a bad motto for what we are called to engage in as members together of the Body of Christ. Each week, as we approach the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we are engaged in the outrageous pursuit of hope. Good Friday and Easter is the outrageous message of hope. It is a costly journey. But we have the vision, we have one another and we have Christ.
I pray that God will richly bless our pilgrimage together.